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Improving our public schools

Monday, June 03, 2013 - Updated: 4:08 AM

The rigorous Common Core learning standards that have been adopted by 45 states represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the United States to improve public schools nationally, bringing math, science and literacy education up to levels achieved by high-performing nations abroad.

The Department of Education has rightly pushed the states to jettison outmoded systems in exchange for a challenging, writing-intensive approach. But the department, which has set a rapid timetable for this transformation, will need to give the states some flexibility so that teachers -- who themselves are under pressure to meet evaluation standards -- can adjust to the new curriculum.

A bipartisan effort pioneered by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core approach sets ambitious goals for math, reading and writing skills as children move through school. By fifth grade, for example, students who now do very little in the way of challenging writing assignments will be required to produce essays in which they introduce, support and defend arguments, using specific details. By 12th grade, these students will be expected to have problem-solving skills customarily associated with the first year of college.

This will require states to change just about everything: curriculum, principal and teacher training, textbooks. At the same time, agreements that most states have made with the Department of Education will require them to institute teacher and school evaluation systems that take student test scores into account, based on year-to-year progress. In many states, the first evaluation will be partly based on old tests that have nothing to do with new learning standards. This could undermine confidence in the reform and give teachers an incentive to ignore the new curriculum.

The answer is not to stop the reform effort. The states should proceed with the new curriculum and non-test aspects of the evaluation system, like classroom observation of teachers, and critiques of lesson plans. But the Education Department should give states the flexibility to refrain from penalizing schools or teachers based on the test data for at least a year, until an evaluation system for the Common Core is validated. This would only be common sense.

-- The New York Times


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